This yawn of an offense puts Eagles to rest

January 20, 2003|By MIKE PRESTON

PHILADELPHIA - There wasn't much difference in the talent level between the Philadelphia Eagles and Tampa Bay Buccaneers yesterday, just the way they approached the game.

The Eagles were boring, predictable, timid, overconfident and conservative, playing like a team that was trying not to lose. The Bucs were loose, creative, daring and confident, playing like a team that had nothing to lose. In the last NFL game ever at dumpy, rundown Veterans Stadium, Tampa Bay upset Philadelphia, 27-10, in the NFC championship game.

So much for home-field advantage.

By the time Tampa Bay had buried the Eagles and exorcised the ghosts of playoffs past, Philadelphia coach Andy Reid was hearing plenty of boos from some of the hostile fans who only three hours earlier wanted to put him on the pedestal with ex-Eagles coach Dick Vermeil.

Reid deserved it. The Eagles weren't ready to play, and they could have set the tone right from the outset. Reid was so thoroughly out-coached by the new Genius of 2003, counterpart Jon Gruden, that even he admitted it after the game.

Not once, not twice, but three times.

"There is not a lot to say," said Reid. "It is my responsibility for us to perform better, and I didn't get the job done. It was a variety of things."

Well, Andy, what were they?

"I'm not going to discuss it right now," said Reid. "But I know I can help them out a little more than I just did in that game."

Amen.

The Eagles came in big- headed. They had eliminated the Bucs in the playoffs the past two seasons here and had beaten them four times in a row. The Eagles thought they had mastered the Bucs, and if they played reasonably well, the postseason hex might continue.

So Philadelphia went conservative, especially on offense.

They didn't take any chances. Reid usually comes up with a few gimmick plays for each game, but he didn't even run a reverse yesterday. It was all screens and hitches. Except when quarterback Donovan McNabb scrambled, the Eagles didn't throw more than five passes over 10 yards.

Yawn, yawn.

They should have taken chances early.

After Martin Gramatica kicked a 48-yard field goal to pull the Bucs within 7-3 with 9:58 left in the first quarter, Philadelphia's Brian Mitchell returned the ensuing kickoff 43 yards to the Eagles' 44. After gaining 1 yard on two plays, McNabb tossed to running back Dorsey Levens around right end on third-and-nine.

That play raised a few eyebrows. Was Reid choking on a chicken bone or a peanut butter sandwich? On the Eagles' next possession, faced with a fourth- and-eight at the Tampa Bay 32 with 4:06 left in the first quarter, Reid punted.

"They had to drive 97 yards and we've got a pretty good defense," Reid said.

No, no, no.

It's a home playoff game. Take the chance and grab the dagger. If you score, the place goes nuts. If you don't, they are as quiet as they were after the punt.

But the Eagles weren't thinking that way. On a day when Philadelphia's average starting possession was at its 38, the Eagles were as conservative as Newt Gingrich.

"I can't comment on Andy's play-calling, and I don't ever comment on my peers," said Eagles receiver Antonio Freeman. "But he calls the plays, and we have to adjust regardless if there are six [defenders] in the box or eight. Today, we just didn't make the adjustments. They made plays and we didn't."

Reid may have become more conservative as the game went on because McNabb was terrible. A week ago, the TV talking heads said McNabb was back after missing most of the regular season and then playing against the Atlanta Falcons. But he struggled in the second half when his arm grew as tired as his legs.

McNabb was 26-for-49 yesterday for 243 yards. He couldn't hit tight ends on short routes across the middle or running backs in the flat. Heck, he couldn't hit the ground if he dropped the ball. His biggest mistake came with 3:27 remaining in the game and the Bucs ahead 20-10.

With first down at the Tampa Bay 10, McNabb tried to throw a short pass to Freeman, only to see cornerback Ronde Barber step in front and return it 92 yards for a touchdown.

Freeman said Barber made a great play, and the Bucs played great defense all afternoon. They kept pressure on McNabb, sacking him only twice but forcing him to move several times. But it was easy because the Eagles were so vanilla.

Meanwhile, the Bucs were aggressive. Quarterback Brad Johnson wasn't sacked at all. The Bucs attacked the Eagles all over the field, especially in the flats with passes to their tight ends and running backs. Tampa Bay knew it couldn't win here with field goals, and the Bucs were relentless, gaining 308 total yards.

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